Interfaith Dialogue:  Part II, What and Why

Interfaith Dialogue:  Part II, What and Why

by Dr. Robert D. Crane


I.  Introduction

The series of interviews sponsored by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DCID) for Ramadhan 2013 reflects an upsurge in religion all over the world.  This challenge is to shift one’s perspective on the world from a threat mentality, which looks at religion as a source of conflict, poverty, and oppression, toward an opportunity mentality, which looks at religion as the ultimate source of peace, prosperity, and freedom.

The first introductory session of this series addressed the role of dialogue in the scriptures of the three Abraham religions under the title, “Interfaith Dialogue: Part I, Is It Islamic?”.  This second introductory session addresses more general questions about the why and what of dialogue.  This is to be followed by a series of dialogue questions on specific current public policy issues.

II.  Why Dialogue

Why religious dialogue?  The answer is simple.  Religion is important.  The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, in a poll of 230 countries and territories taken in 2010, found that 84% of the world’s population self-identifies itself as followers of a formal religion.  16% do not identify with any particular faith, but many of them believe in God or a universal spirit, that is, in a transcendent dimension of reality.

The world seems to be entering a period of spiritual renaissance, but whenever such enlightened forces appear, counter forces gather to undermine it or to co-opt it in radical self-defense. 

Tariq Ramadan published an article on February 5, 2013, in ABC Religion and Ethics, entitled “Irrational atheists are unwilling to recognize the beneficial role of religion”.  He cites the assertion by the renowned Richard Dawkins at a Cambridge University debate on the subject that, “Religion is more dangerous than beneficial, because religion is inherently evil”.  The one thousand students listening to the debate voted against Dawkins by agreeing that atheistic religio-phobes can be just as irrationally dogmatic or more so than one finds among benighted followers of organized religion.  This suggests that the younger generation may be even more attuned than the older generations to the constructive value of religion and of interfaith dialogue.

This year, 2013, has witnessed a further flourishing of religious, philosophical, cultural, and political dialogue, and has led to such events as this Ramadhan series in Qatar and to the first issue next month in London of a new Journal of Dialogue Studies.  This journal is designed to create a new academic discipline focused on whether and how religious dialogue can lead more effectively than lack of it to peace, prosperity, and freedom through compassionate justice.

A major part of the answer is education.  Even if one concludes that interfaith dialogue is useful for pragmatic reasons, such as self-defense in a hostile world, a further question is whether it can contribute constructively to the new movement for “value-oriented education”.  Such education has been basic to every civilization, but most specifically as a basis for classical American and classical Islamic thought.  This, in turn, is essential for successful dialogue on behalf of peace, prosperity, and freedom through compassionate justice.

The drafter of America’s Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, said, “A nation can remain free only if it is properly educated.  Proper education consists of teaching and learning virtue.  A people can remain virtuous only if the personal and public life of the individual is infused with awareness and love of Divine Providence”, by which he meant God.

Unfortunately the value-oriented education inherent in the humanities has been declining all over the world by an unbalanced focus on science and technology as the only road for governments to create jobs and to compete or even to survive in a globalized world focused on the acquisition of material power.

Interfaith dialogue can serve to restore balance, especially through the study of human responsibilities and human rights through awareness of natural law and global ethics, otherwise known as normative jurisprudence.  A separate session of this dialogue series addresses this issue.

Vedantists and their equivalents in all the world religions advise: “Don’t look at the things, but look through them”.  The best example of the paradigmatic clash between transcendence and immanence is the modern use of the Arabic phrase, ma mushkila, which is meant to be a translation of the colloquial English “no problem”.  In English a problem is an obstacle or barrier that must be overcome by the use of external force.  In classical Arabic a mushkila or problem denotes a lack of internal harmony, from the verb sha-ka-la, which means to fracture.  The solution to problems therefore is to restore harmony.

Rehabilitation of the humanities and of their core transcendence as a source of wisdom, harmony, and compassionate justice is perhaps most evident in the opening last month of a new Office of Religious Engagement in the U.S. Department of State.  This was announced in early June, 2013, at the U.S./Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar. 

Opponents have argued for several years that such an office would be unconstitutional, because government policy should be neutral toward religion.  Their denial of religion as a constructive factor in world affairs was countered by Doug Johnston.  He is one of the two Senior Research Associates of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, which was founded in 1980 as the self-styled brain-trust for the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood or Ikhwan.  For many years he was the Executive Director of the world’s most influential think tank, The Center for Strategic and International Studies, which Admiral Arleigh Burke, David Abshire, Richard Allen, and I founded more than half a century ago in 1962 as the world’s first foreign policy think tank.  In 1995, while still at Washington’s leading think-tank, Doug Johnston launched the modern movement to take religion seriously as a force for peace and against extremism of all kinds by publishing his classic book on the subject, Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft.

Perhaps the most far-sighted advocate of this movement to appreciate the constructive force of enlightened religion and of education about the purpose and strategies for successful dialogue is Shaykha Moza, who founded the Qatar Foundation.  Her vision is to bring together the best of all civilizations and religions to universalize their spiritual awareness and plurality of wisdom by interfaith cooperation in pursuing the vision of peace, prosperity, and freedom through the interfaith harmony of transcendent and compassionate justice for everyone and every community.

III.  What is Interfaith Dialogue

In the realm of paradigmatic vision and purpose it is important to use precise language.  The great Roman philosopher, Cicero, stated two thousand years ago that the first task in the study of any subject whatsoever is to define terms.  What therefore is “interfaith dialogue”?

We might start a definition by explaining what it is not.  Constructive dialogue is not mere tolerance, because tolerance can mean only “I won’t kill you yet”.  It is not even respect for diversity, because such respect may mean only “You are here damn it, and I can’t do much about it”.  Real religious dialogue is the kind of pluralism that means “We welcome you because we each have so much to learn from each other”. 

Similarly, religious dialogue does not mean merely “peaceful coexistence”, like two scorpions in a bottle.  Rather, it means peaceful co-operation and solidarity in pursuing the kind of vision and mission pioneered in Qatar.

One might look at religious dialogue through several distinct lenses.  One of them is to focus on the distinction between spiritual leaders and religio-political bureaucrats, otherwise known as religious leaders.  When President Reagan asked me in 1981 to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, he also asked me to prepare a series of trialogue conferences at the foot of Mount Sinai, where for more than fourteen centuries Muslims have protected the monks in one of the world’s oldest Christian monasteries.

Accordingly, during a three month period of preparation, including further study of Arabic, I prepared a 250-page proposal for the gathering of the spiritual leaders of the three Abrahamic religions, starting with a symposium on the task of economic justice to reverse the wealth gap within and among countries by broadening and even universalizing capital ownership.  As President Ronald Reagan put it, “The problem with capitalism is that in a world of trickle-down economics there aren’t enough capitalists to share the trillions of dollars of new wealth being created in a globalizing world and to create a vibrant market sufficient to consume the product.”

President Reagan’s hope was that the spiritual leaders in the world could prepare the way for political leaders to promote economic democracy by reforming the very institutions of society, starting with the current wealth-concentrating system of money, credit, and banking.  He hoped that the spiritual leaders could then help reinforce whatever good might result.

My selection as the leader of the Jewish delegation in 1982 was Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who is said to be the greatest rabbi since Maimonides eight hundred years ago.  He was controversial in Israel, but he had so much esteem that he could say what others dared only think, including advocacy of economic democracy as a key to democratic politics.

Unfortunately, Israel’s carefully timed invasion of Lebanon ended this initiative after the preparations were almost complete.  President Reagan never followed through on what he called a “Second American Revolution” to pursue the American Founders’ highest vision, which was to build a model for the world of both economic and political self-determination.

Another lens for defining interfaith dialogue could be the distinction between “traditional” versus “post-modernist” and between the “essence” of religion and its external practice or non-practice. This distinction has provided the guidelines for my professional work as director of a center, founded two years ago to study the Arab Spring but renamed on January 1, 2013, as the Center for the Study of Islamic Thought and Muslim Societies.  Its mission has been to study the past, current state of the art, and future scenarios for any transformative evolution by comparing classical Islamic thought to its modern practice or lack of practice.

My two-part introduction for this series of interviews on interfaith dialogue has looked at the role of dialogue in Abrahamic scriptures and at the challenges and potential role of dialogue today.  These two introductions provide a paradigmatic framework for discussion on specific issues in the other sessions.  The 20-minute interviews on the Qatar Foundation’s QF Radio are to be augmented by written follow-ups by the “faculty” of this series, so that the scholars can better interact and thereby help the series as a whole evolve toward its overall purpose of supporting Qatar’s leadership in pursuing its national vision and mission.


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